3D printing eradicates waste, lowers transport costs and can bring us back to local, made-to-order, personalized workmanship.
It seems no week goes by without news on 3D printing. And with news such as the 3D-printed exoskeleton that gave a little girl use of her arms again; raw meat created with a bioprinter; or clothing made to fit individual body scans with a multi-material printer… Is there any wonder why?
3D printing is an awesome technology that makes it possible to create a solid physical object from a digital 3D model. It is also known as additive manufacturing because objects are generally built out of layers. A robot, known as a 3D printer, sprays the material —metal, plaster, polymer, resin— out of maneuverable nozzles. After laying down the bottom layer, it waits for it to dry or solidify, and slowly works its way up until the product is done.
In fact, however, 3D printing is an ‘umbrella’ term covering a handful of technologies, which have to be chosen depending on the material, amount of colors, and resolution required, as well as available funding. Some 3D printing approaches are very similar, but each of them addresses the challenge in a different way, with their associated benefits and drawbacks.
Selective laser sintering and digital light processing are two of the most powerful technologies available at the moment. These are very much industrial methods, mainly used to make manufacturing operations more efficient —generally for the aerospace, medical or automotive sectors.
NASA, for example, is testing 3D food printers for space travel. Doctors, on the other hand, are trying out 3D printed prosthetics and Utrecht Hospital recently carried out a 3D printed skull transplant. Also, the first 3D printed formula race car was recently tested in Hockenheim, with satisfactory results (accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h in just 4 seconds).
Bringing 3D Printing Mainstream
Although “much of the growth in 3D printing from 2014 to 2020 will come from the healthcare and aerospace industries”, according to MarketsandMarkets, 3D printing has been around long enough —the first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp—, for software to get easier to use, and hardware to be smaller and cheaper.
Indeed, 3D printing is just starting to go mainstream. In a matter of a few years, it has become rather popular, especially among the DIY, hacker and maker communities. As a consequence, even if you can’t model your idea, it is possible to find other people’s models online and use them as a base for your own project. And, in October 2013, the Zeus “all-in-one” 3D printer and copier past its crowdfunding goal, so it will soon be possible to copy physical items and print them without even having to model the original object first.
However, 3D printers don’t come all that cheap yet. Anyone considering buying one is looking at spending an average of $500 to $2000 and up. For those interested, Engadget has an amazing guide to 3D printers that includes models large and small, personal to professional and 3Ders.org has published a comparison chart listing prices, models, manufacturers, lead times, and more for dozens of commercially available and crowdfunded 3D printers.
But there are other options available, too. If you’d like to have a go at using a 3D printer but don’t want to buy one, you can head to your local hackerspace and become a member. And if you don’t have one nearby, it’s worth checking with your local vocational schools, community colleges, or universities.
And, of course, you can also turn to professional 3D printing companies, like Shapeways or Sculpteo, who will print your model or idea and some even let you sell your creations through their marketplace.
The Future of Making
There are also sites like 3DHubs that make it possible to connect people who want to print with people owning the right machines. In fact, these sites are part of a trend of people wanting to democratize the ideation-to-production process.
“While the industrial revolution did a lot to advance humanity, it eradicated local manufacturing that people like my grandfather, a cobbler, excelled in. It atrophied society’s craftsmanship skills.”
Avi Reichental, 3D printing pioneer.
This movement believes 3D printing could cut out the need for product transportation and bring us back to local, made-to-order, personalized craftsmanship.
In March 2014, the construction of the world’s first 3D-printed house was started. Hedwig Heinsman of Dus Architects said in an interview to The Guardian: “The building industry is one of the most polluting and inefficient industries out there. With 3D-printing, there is zero waste, reduced transportation costs, and everything can be melted down and recycled. This could revolutionize how we make our cities.”
This is just the beginning of 3D printing. It might still be a hobby for hackers and makers, but sooner rather than later it will become commonplace in people’s lives. Today, 3D printers are already being used to create titanium aircraft parts, human bones, nano-scale machines, and more. What crazier things they will be capable of creating in the future, is to be seen.